THE school of Byzantium, so widespread in its influence, was particularly strong in Venice, where mosaics adorned the cathedral of Torcello from the ninth century and St. Mark’s became a splendid storehouse of Byzantine art. The earliest mosaic on the façade of St. Mark’s was executed about the year 1250, those in the Baptistery date during the reign of Andrea Dandolo, who was Doge from 1342 to 1354. Yet though the life of Giotto lies between these two dates, and his frescoes at Padua were within a few hours’ journey, there is no sign that the great revolution in painting, which was making itself felt in every principal centre of Italy, had touched the richest and most peaceful of all her States.
Yet local art in Venice was no outcome of Byzantinism. It rose as that of the mosaicists fell, but its rise differs from that of Florence and Siena in being for long almost imperceptible. Artists were looked upon merely as artisans in all the cities of Italy, but in Venice before any other city they had been placed among the craftsmen. The statute of the Guild of Siena was not formulated till 1355 ; that of Venice is the earliest of which we have any record, and bears the date of 1272. There is scarcely a word to indicate that pictures in the modern sense of the term existed. Painters were employed on the adornment of arms and of household furniture. Leather helmets and shields were painted, and such banners as we see in Paolo Uccello’s battle-pieces. Painted chests and cassoni were already in demand, dishes and plates for the table and the surface of the table itself were treated in a similar way. Special regulations dealt with all these, and it is only at the end of the list that anconæ are mentioned. The ancona was a gilded frame-work, having a compartment containing a picture of the Madonna and Child, and others with single figures of the saints, and these were the only pictures proper produced at this date. The demand for anconæ was, however, large, and they were very early placed, not only in the churches, but in the houses of patricians and burghers. Constant disputes arose between the painters and the gilders. Pictures were habitually painted upon a gold ground, but the painters were forbidden to gild the back-grounds themselves. ” Gilding is the business of the gilder, painting that of the painter,” says a contemporary record. ” Now the gilder contends that if a frame has to be gilt and then touched with colour, he is entitled to perform both operations, but the painter disputes this right, and maintains that the gilder should return it to him when the addition of painting is desired.” It was, however, finally decided by law that each should exercise both professions, when one or the other played a subordinate part in the finished work. Though the art of mosaic was falling into decay as painting began to emerge, yet the commercial manufactory of Byzantine Madonnas, which had been established as early as 600, went on, on the Rialto, without any variation of the traditional forms.
Florence very early discarded the temptation to cling to material splendour, but as we pass into the Hall of the Primitives in the Venetian Academy, we see at once that Venetian art, in its earlier stages, has more to do with the gilder than the painter. The Holy Personages are merely accessories to the gorgeous framework, the embossed ornaments, the real jewels, which were in favour with the rich and magnificent patrons. There is no sign of any feeling for painting as painting, no craving after the study of form as the outcome of intellectual activity, no zest of discovery, such as made the painter’s life in Florence an excitement in which the public shared. What little Venice imbibes of these things is from outside influence, after due lapse of time. A prosperous, luxurious city of merchants and statesmen, she was too much bound up in the transactions and sensations of actual life to develop any abstract and thoughtful ideals.
Perhaps the first painting we can discover which shows any sign of independent effort is the series which Paolo da Venezia painted on the back of the Pala d’ Oro, over the high altar of St. Mark, when it was restored in the fourteenth century. This reveals an artist with some pictorial aptitude and one alive to the subjects that surround him. It tells the story of St. Mark’s corpse transported to Venice. The first panel contains a group of cardinals of varying types and expressions ; in another the disciple listening to St. Mark’s teaching, and crouching with his elbows on his knees, has a true, natural touch. The dramatic feeling here and there is considerable. The scene of the guards watching the imprisoned Saint through the window and seeing the shadow of two heads, as the Saviour visits him, imparts a distinct emotion ; and there is force as well as feeling for decorative composition in the panel in which the Saint’s body lies at the feet of the sailors, while his vision appears shining upon the sails.
Except for the exaggerated insistence on the gilded elaborations of the early ancona, there is not much to differentiate the early art of Venice from that of other centres ; but we notice that it persevered longer in the material and mechanical art of the craftsman. Tuscan taste made little impression, and many years elapsed before work akin to that of Giotto attracted attention and was admired and imitated. A man like Antonio Veneziano met with the fate of the innovator in Venice. He had too much of the simplicity of the Tuscan and was compelled to carry his work to Pisa, where his naïf and humorous narratives still delight us in the Campo Santo. It was in 1384 that he was employed to finish the frescoes of the life of S. Ranieri, which had been left uncompleted at Andrea da Firenze’s death, and the fondness for architecture and surroundings in the Florentine taste, which secured him a welcome, may, as Vasari says, be derived from Agnolo Gaddi, who had already visited Padua and Venice.
In the last years of the fourteenth century tributary streams begin to feed the feeble main current. In 1365 Guariento, a Paduan, was employed by the State to paint a huge fresco of Paradise in the Hall of the Gran Consiglio of the Ducal Palace. This, which lay hid for centuries under the painting by Tintoretto, was uncovered in 1909 and found to be in fairly good preservation. It can now be seen in a side room. It tells us that Guariento had to some extent been influenced by Giotto. The thrones have long Gothic pendatives, the faces have more the Giottesque than the Byzantine cast and show that the old traditions were crumbling.
When painting in Venice first begins to live a life of its own, Jacobello del Fiore stands out as the most conspicuous of the indigenous Venetians. His father had been president of the Painters’ Guild. Jacopo himself was president from 1415 to 1436. He was a rich and popular member of the State and a man of high character. His works, to judge by the specimens left, hardly attained the dignity of art, though in the banner of ” Justice,” in the Academy, the space is filled in a monumental fashion and the figure of St. Gabriel with the lily has something grand and graceful. We trace the same treatment of flying banners and draperies and rippling hair in the fantastic but picturesque S. Grisogono in the left transept of San Trovaso. Jacobello’s will, executed in 1439 in favour of his wife Lucia and his son, Ercole, with provision for a possible posthumous son, shows him to have been a man of considerable possessions. He owned a slave and had other servants, a house, money, and books. Among his fellow-workers who are represented in Venice are Niccolo Semitocolo, Niccolo di Pietro, and Lorenzo Veneziano. The important altarpiece by the last, in the Academy, has evidently been reconstructed ; two Eternal Fathers hover over the Annunciation, and the Saints have been restored to the framework in such wise that the backs of many of them are turned on the momentous central event. In the ” Marriage of St. Catherine,” in the same gallery, Lorenzo gets more natural. The Child, in a light green dress with gold buttons, has a lively expression, and looks round at His Mother as if playing a game. The chapel of San Tarasio in San Zaccaria contains an ancona of which the central panel was only inserted in 1839, and is identical with Lorenzo’s other work. One of the finest and most elaborate of all the anconæ is in San Giovanni in Bragora, and is also the work of Lorenzo. In this, as well as in that of San Tarasio, the Mother offers the Child the apple, signifying the fruit of the Tree of Jesse and symbolical of the Incarnation. This incident, which is found thus early in art, was evidently felt to raise the group of the Mother and Child from a representation of a merely earthly relationship to a spiritual scene of the deepest meaning and the highest dignity.
Niccolo di Pietro has several early works of the last decade of the fourteenth century, from which we gather that he began as a Byzantine, but that he imitated Guariento and was tentatively drawn to the Giottesque movement, but not, we may remember, before Giotto had been dead for some sixty years. Niccolo di Pietro has been confounded with Niccolo Semitocolo, but it is now realised that they were two distinct masters. The most important work of Michele Giambono which has come down to us is the signed ancona with five saints, now in the Venetian Academy. It is unusual to find a saint in the central panel instead of the Madonna. The saint is on a larger scale than his companions, and has hitherto passed as the Redeemer, but Professor Venturi has identified him as St. James the Great. He has the gold scallop-shell and pilgrim’s staff. It is clear from his size and position that the ancona has been painted for an altar specially dedicated to this Apostle.
The saints on the right are S. Michael and S. Louis of Toulouse. Between S. John the Evangelist and S. James is a monastic figure which has evidently changed places with S. John at some moment of restoration. If the two figures are transposed, their attitudes become intelligible. S. John is inculcating a message inscribed in his open book, while the monk is displaying his humble answer on his own page. The use in it of the term servus suggests that he is a Servite, though the want of the nimbus precludes the idea that he is one of the founders. It is probable that he is S. Filipo Benizzi, who, though considered as a saint from the time of his death, was not canonised for several centuries.
The Mond Collection includes a glowing picture by Giambono ; a seated figure clad in rich vestments and holding an orb, probably representing a Throne,” one of the angelic orders of the celestial Hierarchy.
Works are still in existence which may be ascribed to one or other of these masters, or of which no attribution can be made, but we know nothing positive of any other artists of the time which preceded the influence of Gentile da Fabriano. Nothing leads us to suppose that the Venetian School in its origin had any pre-tension to be a school of colour, or that it could claim anything like real excellence at a time when the Republic first became alive to the movement which was going on in other parts of Italy, and decided to call in foreign talent.